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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Rights groups call for release of Tibetan education advocate charged with “inciting separatism”

January 23, 2017

By Edward Wong

New York Times, January 18, 2017 - International human rights groups are calling on China to drop charges against a Tibetan entrepreneur and education advocate who was indicted by court officials this month for “inciting separatism.”

The Tibetan advocate, Tashi Wangchuk, was detained nearly one year ago after speaking to The New York Times for a documentary video and two articles on Tibetan education and culture.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both issued statements in recent days asking for China to release Mr. Tashi, 31.

A lawyer for Mr. Tashi, Lin Qilei, said judges in the Yushu Intermediate Court, in western China, would probably not schedule the trial until after the annual Lunar New Year holiday, which runs from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2.

Mr. Tashi said he was not guilty of the separatism charge, Mr. Lin said. In interviews in 2015 with The Times, Mr. Tashi said he did not support independence for Tibet.

Another lawyer for Mr. Tashi, Liang Xiaojun, has said the Yushu police focused their investigation of Mr. Tashi on the nine-minute Times video produced by Jonah M. Kessel, which showed Mr. Tashi’s attempts to file a lawsuit against local officials to compel them to expand Tibetan language education. Mr. Tashi had also written about the language issue on his blog.

Defendants who go on trial in China are almost always convicted. In political cases like that of Mr. Tashi, orders are sent from senior officials to the court. If convicted, Mr. Tashi could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Mr. Tashi’s legal case has taken some unusual turns. The groups issuing statements are hoping that Mr. Tashi’s case will not go to trial and say international pressure could be critical now.

Amnesty International said in a statement Wednesday that it was calling on the public to ask specific officials in China to free Mr. Tashi. It listed contact information for prosecutors and the police in Yushu, Mr. Tashi’s hometown, and Qinghai Province, as well as the governor of Qinghai.

Amnesty said Mr. Tashi was a “prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression.”

Human Rights Watch released a detailed chronology of the case and called it “politically motivated.”

“Tashi Wangchuk has joined the ranks of those prosecuted in China by simply calling for rights to be respected and the law to be upheld,” said Sophie Richardson, the group’s China director. “Cultural rights, which include the right to use one’s own language, are protected under both the Chinese Constitution and international human rights law.”

Mr. Tashi’s case has drawn intense international attention. In December, Max Baucus, the United States ambassador to China, mentioned Mr. Tashi and several other political prisoners in China in a long statement emphasizing the importance of human rights. PEN America, a group that promotes freedom of expression, noted Mr. Tashi’s detention in a 76-page report in September that criticized China’s attempts to censor foreign reporting.

A campaigns director with Students for a Free Tibet, based in New York, said Wednesday that the group planned to ask its members to publicly advocate for Mr. Tashi.

Lawyers for Mr. Tashi were allowed to visit him briefly last year in a Qinghai detention center. Mr. Lin said Mr. Tashi was in good spirits, given the circumstances, and was writing up points to make in his defense during a trial. When interviewed by The Times in 2015, Mr. Tashi insisted repeatedly that his remarks be on the record and said he knew he could be imprisoned after publication of the video and articles, given the political sensibilities in China over Tibet.

Mr. Tashi traveled to Beijing in 2015 to look for lawyers to help him file his lawsuit and to try to get China Central Television, the state network, and foreign journalists to document his efforts and the lack of robust Tibetan-language education in public schools in Tibetan regions.

Mr. Tashi said he wanted to use Chinese laws to expand language education, and he praised President Xi Jinping for having “promoted a democratic and law-abiding country these last few years.”

Mr. Tashi was detained by the Yushu police on Jan. 27, 2016, two months after publication of the video and the first article. Prosecutors sent the case to the court in September to have the court indict Mr. Tashi and schedule a trial, but then took the case back in December for further investigation, a move that was “very rare,” Mr. Lin said. Prosecutors resubmitted the case in early January.

Tibetans living under Chinese rule often say they are concerned about the dwindling use of their language, especially among younger Tibetans. Tibetan teachers and students in Qinghai Province have held protests over language education in recent years.

Mr. Tashi ran a shop in central Yushu from which he sold local goods in person and online. Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company, chose Mr. Tashi to be featured in a video for the company’s investor roadshow before a high-profile initial public offering. The founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, met with President-elect Donald J. Trump in New York early this month.

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